Summary: A sermon on the complete book of Philemon.
Today, as we look at the Book of Philemon, we are going to see forgiveness in action. So if you have your bibles with you today, open up to the Book of Philemon. Now I suspect that Philemon may be a difficult book for you to find. Unlike the Book of Eli it IS actually a book in the Bible, it is sandwiched between Titus and Hebrews. It is toward the back of your Bible.
It is hard to find because basically Philemon only has one chapter with 25 verses. But even though the book is short on length, it is deep and rich in content. Last Thursday, we had our first community Bible study group, and we actually looked at the Book of Philemon. So many people came up with all sorts of observations and a number of applications from the Book of Philemon that we can immediately apply to our life. That is what I wanted to do today is to share some of those observations as we go through the entire Book of Philemon. One thing to remember, it really isn’t a book. When it was first written it was written as a simple letter. A correspondence between two friends; between the Apostle Paul and his friend Philemon.Now keep in mind, when we are reading a letter, it is kind of like opening up and reading somebody else’s mail. Consequently t is helpful to have some background information on the letter before we read it.
As I mentioned, Philemon was a friend of Paul, and Philemon was believed to be a Christian, someone who was converted by Paul likely in Ephesus where Paul spent a lot of time. Philemon, in this particular story, is living in what is believed to be Colossae, and he is a wealthy Christian. It is believed that he owns a number of slaves. Now I know that sometimes this idea of slavery, especially as we encounter it in the Bible, is difficult for us to swallow because it just seems like that is obviously not a good thing. But we have to remember, this is 1st Century. Slavery was a deeply embedded social institution. Really, at that particular point, it was an economic necessity for some. Again, the Christians were just forming. They were still considered a cult. They were just a small band of believers. If they were going to try to dismantle slavery all of a sudden, to incite the slaves to riot or to revolt, they would have risked the backlash of the Roman government. So what did they do? They just simply spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They spread the message of love and reconciliation to fellow man. Slowly, they pretty much aided in the dismantling of slavery.
So the situation we have here in this letter is that Paul is believed to be in prison in Rome, and you have Philemon who is in Colossae, and he owns a number of slaves, including a slave named Onesimus. Now Onesimus actually means something. It means useful. Back then, it would have been a common name for slaves because some slaves were more useful than others. So Onesimus means useful. As the story goes, Onesimus the slave either stole something, either broke something, either damaged property, or simply ran away from Philemon. He makes his way to Rome where he seeks out Paul because maybe he knows that Paul knows Philemon. Whatever the case, he seeks him out and in the process Onesimus gets converted by Paul, but instead of Paul holding on and trying to protect Onesimus, he encourages Onesimus to go back home to Philemon and to reconcile with the master. He knows that Onesimus is going to be a little bit nervous about this so he sends a letter along with Onesimus back to Philemon encouraging him in his own gentle and creative way to receive Onesimus back into his home. So that is the background.
What we are going to do is go through the entire letter today because it is only 25 verses, and you really have to read the entire letter to get the understanding of really what is going on. As I read through the letter, kind of watch for Paul’s creative use of words. What someone would call rhetoric. He is very good at that. Pay particular attention to how he utilizes the word ‘heart’. Pay attention to the word ‘heart’ because this word heart actually becomes the heart of his logic to get Philemon to receive back Onesimus. So we are going to start back from the very beginning. It says:
(Scripture read here, Philemon 1:1-3.)
This particular letter starts out by saying Paul, which is the way letters were written back then is that the author would identify himself first. So Paul and Timothy are writing this letter to Philemon. If you pay attention, you see that it is not only to Philemon, it is to some other people in that home. It is to Apphia, which some would believe is actually Philemon’s wife. It is also written to Archippus which is believed maybe to be his son or possibly even the local pastor. Then it is also written to the church that meets in Philemon’s home. Back then, they didn’t have these nice church buildings with video and power point and all that stuff. They met in a home. Often, they met in the home of the wealthy people that got converted because they could accommodate in some cases up to 100 people there. So Paul is directing the letter not simply to Philemon but to his wife, possibly his son, possibly the pastor, and the entire church that meets in Philemon’s home. And the question is why? Because he wanted to increase accountability. He wanted to make sure that a lot of people were aware of this particular situation. We could read this letter and we could say this was a domestic issue really between Onesimus and Philemon. Why get so many people involved? The bottom line is that when two Christians, these were both Christians at the time, are having some sort of a dispute, if it is not checked by the church, it begins to effect the unity of the entire church. It actually can hinder the effectiveness of the church in the world. So Paul wants to make sure Philemon doesn’t just take the letter and throw it away. He wants to make sure that everybody is aware of this particular situation. So that is the opening.